Internment by Samira Ahmed

Today, the two biggest world powers openly run racist concentration camps. So I was in two minds when, browsing the public library shelves, I stumbled on INTERNMENT by Samira Ahmed, a YA novel set in a near-future United States which begins detaining Muslim citizens in internment camps. The story of a teenage girl fomenting dissent within the first camp, the book seemed on one level attractive (children/young people need human stories to understand such matters, and they need exemplars of action and hope); and yet also almost inevitably inappropriate.

Is it in the power of fictional dramatisation to do justice to the peoples wronged by such camps, past, present and potential? Should it be attempted, and if so, how? To be sure, I love—I have been immeasurably enriched by—many works that seek to engage the horrors of fascism. But even with the most sensitive and accomplished creations, one reckons with the ethical question of fashioning beauty from blood—the risk of artistic vampirism.

What more when a book strives to hew, as INTERNMENT does, to contemporary YA conventions? A pacy and satisfying plot, depicting individual triumph, in a world of cruelties that are real and meaningful, but nevertheless defeasible. What if this form simply cannot contain this subject without becoming insulting, distended? What if this kind of human evil is just too much?

Reading the book only heightened my ambivalence. Samira Ahmed renders the sparky, witty and energetic Layla Amin and her family with liveliness and grace. Early scenes are particularly good at conveying the terror and disorientation of their initial displacement, and an important thread running through the book traces the bonds of friendship and solidarity built by Layla with fellow internees, as well as with a camp guard of complicated allegiances. What can and must we risk of ourselves—and others—in projects of political resistance? What might we sacrifice when we speak? What when we are silent? Faced with injustice, where are the various places we might stand on the spectrum from treacherous complicity to passive acquiescence to outright resistance?

These questions are repeatedly probed as Layla ignites rebellion, while standing together with others inside and outside the camp, including her biracial Jewish boyfriend and (in an unduly flattering fictional portrayal) Anonymous. While she ultimately succeeds in bringing down the camp, in a stirring portrait of the power of popular protest, we can never forget that this victory (or perhaps it’s better thought of as a reprieve) comes, like all progress, at a heavy cost.

It is an important message, and yet. I find myself vaguely dissatisfied on counts that range from relatively superficial to more serious, but which all connect up, perhaps, to the difficulty of the subject matter. How bad should the material conditions be in a fictional internment camp? How brutal the treatment? There is a very tricky calculus in thinking about what is reflective of history and reality without descending into some sort of horrible demand for dehumanising “authenticity”. Certainly Samira Ahmed does not take this issue lightly. Layla is a well-read teenager and makes her own clear-eyed acknowledgement of the WWII precedents (the Japanese-American internment camps, the Nazi abominations). I found it impossible, nevertheless, not to find her camp implausibly humane, next to the contemporary examples of migrant children in the US or detainees in Manus Island—and also to be unhappy at myself for harbouring such an absurd standard.

There is a parallel difficulty in the question of how this evil might be defeated. Layla and her fellow internees attain their freedom through the evergreen action movie device of media exposure, prompting popular outrage and protest. I am not sure how to respond to this narrative ploy. Perhaps it is increasingly unconvincing in the face of open, brazen commission of atrocity. Knowing has not closed the camps that exist. Yet sunlight is a tool that democrats (in which I include myself) still cling to, a hope we still indulge. To find it weak when presented in story form is to doubt oneself as much as the story. I also can’t help but feel some political cultural distance in considering the ready risk-taking of Layla’s comrades: perhaps such a thing makes more sense in the United States.

A final few gripes about comparatively minor points. One, why is the Director so persistently reduced to cartoonish elements of physical distastefulness (spit, bulging veins, whiskey breath), and indeed incompetence? Can’t his villainy in running such a place speak for itself? This seemed heavy-handed. Two, I had strong reservations about the clear subtext of romantic tension between Layla and Jake, turncoat prison guard. His heroism alone mildly strains the reader’s credulity, but it is perhaps on balance acceptable in the interests of plot. To further assign him a crush on Layla felt like a rather inappropriate importation from YA love triangle land. Jake’s own explicit acknowledgement that such a relationship would be inherently coercive feels a little too much like lip service next to all the scenes of sentimental devotion.

Lest I be misunderstood: if I have spilled a lot of words on criticism here, it is largely because the project of this book is ambitious and the product reflects real thought and craft, and is well worth engaging with, even if I’m left very much not knowing what to think.

The Unlikely Adventures of the Shergill Sisters

I absolutely devoured THE UNLIKELY ADVENTURES OF THE SHERGILL SISTERS. Of course Balli Kaur Jaswal has always been a damned fine writer, but this is simply a masterwork. Imagine the most supremely elegant juggling act, in which a dazzling palette of scenes and a four-course meal’s worth of emotional flavours and exquisite comedic notes all make intricate sweeps past one another and then fall back into her hands, one, two, three, with perfect timing and unerring control. You will gasp and nod and laugh and learn; you will exhale and then realise you’d been holding your breath and–is that a tear? Surely not, when it’s been so much fun? p.s. in case you couldn’t tell, I loved it.

They Told Us To Move

Last night I finished reading THEY TOLD US TO MOVE, edited by Ng Kok Hoe and the Cassia Resettlement Team. What a fabulous volume, ranging over so many different registers, scales and subjects–illuminating so much about connection, history, poverty and space. I particularly enjoyed Neo Yu Wei’s essay “Reclaiming the community spirit in the iron cage”, but really, all of it is essential Singapore reading. My brain feels shifted.

Amal Unbound

In AMAL UNBOUND by Aisha Saeed, an academic young girl dreams of becoming a teacher, but is forced into indentured servitude for the wealthy loanshark family which dominates her small Pakistani village.* Heavy stuff for a children’s book, perhaps, but the difficulty of reading it is almost entirely emotional, as broader issues are made vividly concrete: local power dynamics come alive in a tussle over a pomegranate, sophisticated dissonances echo in the division of chores. The inner voice of Amal, her web of familial and neighbourly intimacies, and a strong flavour of village and estate life, are all rendered with remarkable economy. The book insists–to a rather impressive degree–on nuance and humility. If it falters anywhere, it is perhaps that I at least found it hard to be quite as convinced by the hopeful resolution of the book as by the bleakness of the realities it conveys. I also felt that certain narrative threads got a little lost along the way–were the early scenes with Omar, or even Amal’s mother’s post-natal funk, perhaps, destined to go somewhere else? But overall, a powerful volume well worth the time to introduce to children–and while the experiences depicted do not map exactly onto those of live-in domestic workers in Singapore, there are significant parallels which give the book some additional relevance here.

*I see Elena Ferrante in everything now, of course, but the Khans very much put me in mind of the Carraccis and the Solaras; and both Amal’s bookishness and moments of defiance were likewise slightly reminiscent of Lenù and Lila.

Acts of quarantine

Here is an extra spoiler-filled Byatt/Ferrante-off that nobody asked for.

It is unsatisfying to me that the (largely excellent) My Brilliant Friend adaptation gives Antonio short shrift, to the detriment of the characterisation of Lenù. On screen, Antonio is played for cringes. Lenù becomes a passive recipient of the semi-wanted attentions of an over-eager bumbler, who makes shallow jabs at the grooming of his rival, the cool intellectual, Nino. But in the novel, Lenù is actively, if ineptly, manipulative. When Antonio appears after school it is at her request, in order to rub Nino’s face in it. Moreover, it is she who asks that they attend Lila’s wedding as a pair, and because Antonio reasonably takes this as a willingness to socially cement their relationship, he goes into debt to get a new suit—an expense which the show presents as a spontaneous vanity. These changes rob the relationship, and consequently Lenù, of considerable complexity.

Critically, the television series also downplays their mutual physical chemistry. This seems a small matter in the first book alone, but their connection presents a significant comment on sexuality in the wider arc of the four novels. Aside from the creepy elder Sarratore (who is an awful bag of shit), to the best of my recollection only Antonio is strongly presented as offering a woman sexual satisfaction. (For the most part, the books’ descriptions of sex echo Lila’s: “Fucking is overrated.”) In this respect, Antonio is specifically contrasted favourably against Lenù’s other, highly intellectual, middle/upper-class partners, even as union with him represents the danger of being trapped in her origins. Only with Antonio, a man of the neighbourhood—and only after social climbing renders Lenù utterly outside the power of the neighbourhood—do we see in any detail an honest and non-threatening consummation of mutual desire. As is often the case, the neighbourhood is both a source of vitality, as well as inhospitable to it.

I find it fascinating to juxtapose this against (what else) the early loves of Frederica Potter, and her philosophy of “lamination”. Frederica’s compulsive drive to keep everything separate—love, sex, affection, thinking, reading, home—her need to hold all experiences at an analytical distance—is her safeguard against being swallowed whole by local domesticity. For both Ferrante’s and Byatt’s young women, there is a kind of satisficing going on, with their hunger for things that come into conflict—for status, for independence, for knowledge, including sexual knowledge. A major part of how they handle this problem is to quarantine sexual exploration from emotional vulnerability, in defiance of societal (and perhaps also readerly) expectations.

In Frederica’s case, this centres, perhaps counterintuitively, in the character of Alexander. Alexander begins in many respects as a Nino-esque figure, embodying a quiet cultural and intellectual glamour, and inspiring painful desire of an impossibly compound nature: Alexander is sex, he is writing and reading, he is romance, he is social advancement, he is intellectual worth, he is clever company, he is metropolitan escape from Blesford and kitchens and curates. Yet when he is finally within reach, the very completeness of Frederica’s devotion to him repels her. Any possibility of total intimacy is a trap, here signalled by the appearance of the trimmings of domesticity, the chops she can’t cook. She runs away in favour of a lower-stakes, almost clinical—laminated—tryst with the reassuringly unexciting Wilkie.

There are curious parallels between the consensual sexual encounters that both Lenù and Frederica hold at the greatest distance. Both take place outdoors, with older men of extremely peripheral relevance to their lives. Both men seem at first to be safely left behind as private biographical footnotes, until the moment of the women’s first public artistic triumphs, when they reappear in a strange mixture of comedy and threat. Ed, the “traveller in dolls” whom Frederica meets on a bus, comes pushing through the crowd after she performs in Alexander’s play, and has to be hastily evaded. Lenù, cannier and in more control in many ways, successfully transforms her own incident into literary material, and finds her work at the receiving end of a bitter review from the man in question.

Quarantine is a strategy for a rigged world. Marriage, the ultimate running-together of things, simply doesn’t work for the women of these books. Not for Stephanie Potter or Lila Cerullo, with their romantic visions of package deals of love, sex and meaning. Not for Frederica, gambling somewhat incoherently on maintaining emotional and social independence with a sufficiently alien man. Not for Lenù, compromising on social ascension with an inconsiderate sexual damp squib. I’m glad she gets to enjoy Antonio after making it out the other side, and I hope the television series stays true to that, at least, when the time comes around.

You were all right

Despite some earlier ambivalence toward Elena Ferrante, I finally took the billion and a half recommendations to read the Neapolitan novels, and have just stumbled, reeling, off the exhilarating ride that is MY BRILLIANT FRIEND. I will need to get onto the other three books pronto, and I’m sure I will have many more thoughts when I’m done. But I wanted to pause for a remark occasioned by the comparison by John Freeman included among the praise quotes in my copy: “Imagine if Jane Austen got angry.” In fact the parallel that struck me more forcefully, if one really must insist on grounding everything in analogies to works by Anglo authors (note: one need not), is “Imagine if A.S. Byatt weren’t so snobby.” I couldn’t help recalling, as I ate this book up, that other gorgeous, labyrinthine quartet on gender, literature, domesticity, sexuality, tradition and violence–the Frederica Potter books.

Both first volumes begin in the 1950s (with the first appearance of television in the neighbourhood an event of some interest); both trace in sumptuous detail and with great psychological penetration the divergent lives of young people in a close-knit neighbourhood; both centre on young women’s intellectual ambitions and the threats that thwart them; both are rigorously critical but humanistic at heart; and both climax in weddings with varying elements of farce, and, in Ferrante’s case, horror. From what I’ve read so far, Ferrante is a more consistent and disciplined writer–sticking to comparisons between the first volumes for now (avoiding the painful subject of A WHISTLING WOMAN), though I love Byatt in an almost foundational way, I have to admit that the Marcus Potter subplot in THE VIRGIN IN THE GARDEN is not always entirely readable. Ferrante is also, and powerfully, much more attuned to matters of class. While Byatt sometimes gestures in this direction, it’s not really a matter of interest in the Potter books for her as much as it is in THE CHILDREN’S BOOK.

It is hard to overstate the significance of this comparison for me. The Frederica Potter books are, not to put too fine a point on it, like some kind of personal religion. It was on closing the pages of STILL LIFE that I knew I would write A CERTAIN EXPOSURE. I am enormously excited about what the rest of this series is going to do to my head.

Small Worlds: Northern Lights

I’m in the middle of revisiting His Dark Materials, which I absolutely adored when I first read it. This time around, having just finished NORTHERN LIGHTS, I continue to be awed by its imaginative grandeur and its daring, as well as its willingness to inject a kind of wildness and philosophy which is striking to find in a series of children’s books.

But it is impossible for me now not to notice how little time Pullman has for women.

For sure, there are key female characters, notably, of course Lyra. And they are compelling, though still half in the clutches of stereotype: it is rather wearying how Mrs Coulter’s villainy, contemptibility and femininity are all represented as pretty much the same thing. Ma Costa is a powerful presence but—as you might guess from her name—her main role is simply to be maternal. Even Serafina Pekkala can’t quite escape lavish attention to her physical beauty and how much witches love men.

My main complaint, though, isn’t about how the women and girls in the book are portrayed, so much as how needlessly all-male settings recur with dismaying regularity. Why does Jordan College have to be so wholly uncritically portrayed as excluding women? Why (except in the sex-segregated Bolvangar) must all of Lyra’s child friends be boys? Why, among the armoured bears, does “bear” mean male bear, with “she-bear” marking the (silent, passive) exception?

This dynamic undermines the portrayal even the important female characters, whose male daemons get approximately a billion times more airtime than any of the female daemons of the male humans. Contrast the enormous attention given to Mrs Coulter’s golden monkey, the vast amount of dialogue and acts of significance given to Serafina Pekkala’s grey goose, compared to the dumb animal presence of Lord Asriel’s snow leopard or Lee Scoresby’s hare.

The most frustrating example of all, for me, is when the gyptians discuss their rescue mission to the North. A woman in the meeting actually raises an objection to the intention to exclude women, and offers suggestions of how women might be useful (even assuming a firmly gendered division of labour). John Faa says he’ll consider it, and in the next chapter we learn merely that he has decided against, with no real justification. One can’t help but think this represents Pullman’s own approach: noticing that his own book was sexist, giving it about two seconds’ thought, and then shrugging and getting on with (male) things. It lends a strange and arbitrary smallness to a work which is otherwise so vast in its ambitions and achievements.